The Future of Photography - Adapt or Die?

The Future of Photography - Adapt or Die?

Imagine living in the 1900s as a professional photographer. People were overdressed, kids were running around the streets, not with knives or guns, but with sticks, chasing something crudely resembling a wheel. Yet, photographers everywhere were getting upset. Not only because of some "weekend warrior" undercutting them, but due to the fact that Kodak unveiled something that would forever shift the photographic market for decades to come...I'm talking of course, of the Box Brownie.

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This little camera was released in the mid-1900s, and it forever changed the way society views photography as an art form. Gone, was the exclusivity of the photographer with his own portrait studio. Photography became accessible to the layman, wanting a quick snapshot of his family, of his new car, or of his lovely wife. All this, for a relatively low price and quick turnaround time. Suddenly the mysticism surrounding photography had disappeared as the masses became insta-photographers.

Let's fast forward a few years later. Ansel Adams invented and perfected the Zone System. Henri Cartier-Bresson took a photo of a guy skipping a puddle, and Jerry Uelsmann pulled a Dali in the form of a few film composites he created in the darkroom. Film photography became a pillar of our society. Even though it was more accessible to us than ever before, it still remained amongst a few as an exclusive and respected art form.  

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Then came the digital revolution.

Most photographers not wanting to adapt swore this was the death of photography. Yet, most photographers adapted and carried on producing incredible images. The advent of digital meant a quicker turn around time. Feeding the need for instant gratification in all of us. The old timers revolted. And swore they'd never convert. 

I've been shooting on Canon 5D Mark II for the majority of my professional career as a photographer. And while there have been significant improvements in DSLR cameras over years, I've never felt the need to upgrade right away. Silly, you say? Sure, I love the latest addition to the Canon 5D line, but that first full frame I bought still gives me something no other camera can. I've been through so much with that camera and it always performed perfectly. We've been through hell and we made it back.

A month or so ago, I bought a new smartphone, jam packed with the latest sensor and features. While shooting a concert, I thought I'd take out the phone to see how it performs under the extreme conditions of a rock concert. Shooting at 1,600 ISO it performed better than my trusty Canon 5D Mark II. Sure, you say. Of course it would. It's almost a decade old.

Still, it wasn't my 5D. And while I was threatened by this small piece of machinery, it made me realize that this isn't the first time this has happened. Just like the 1900's when photographers felt threatened by the Box Brownie, I felt threatened by a device not even half that size. It just made me realize, this is not the age to be afraid.

This is the age where everything goes.

Nowadays, we have people shooting front covers of reputable magazines using the latest smartphones. Models with no photographic training are shooting campaigns we, as professional photographers wish we could shoot. We have cameras coming out with global shutters and sensors more sensitive than what the human eye can see. How on earth could we be threatened by this? 

It reminds me of picking up my first digital camera. Some cheap 2-megapixel camera. I realized with this I could experiment and do things I haven't been able to do with the "outdated" technology we call film. I could immediately see the results and it wouldn't cost me a cent to experiment and shoot anything and everything. We could now easily create composites and multiple exposures just using software on our computers. But still, I felt a longing back to something I had known for years prior. And I wasn't the only one feeling this way.

Back in the day, we had the warm, comforting sounds that only a vinyl could create. It eventually evolved to tape and then switched over to digital format. Yet in the last few years reports came in that vinyl sales are actually overtaking CD sales.

This trend is not only limited to music. Dave Hill, the king of digital composites, shot some major campaigns using film in recent years. Harley Weir shot a Calvin Klein campaign entirely on film. Even David Bailey still swears by it. 

And with all the digital advancements in our modern age. All the people swearing the death of photography is upon us, we still manage to carry on and produce amazing results. Not only did we adapt. We grew in our art form while not forgetting where it all started from. 

So, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the lab to go develop some film.

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16 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

The Box Brownie was not an extinction event for professional photographers because professionals continued to do photography that casual picture-takers could not accomplish. Today, we have a lot of professional photographers who think it is superior art to emulate the images of casual picture-takers--especially those whose market is casual picture takers (portraits, weddings). THAT is why professionals might go extinct.

Anonymous's picture

The real question now is what exactly is photography, and was what we thought to be photography is now past as a means of expression. If we have verbal, written and visual means of expression, then photography may be past it's best before date

Kirk Darling's picture

When did photography stop being used as one of the visual means of expression?

"The advent of digital meant a quicker turn around time. Feeding the need for instant gratification in all of us. The old timers revolted. And swore they'd never convert."

I'm one of those film old timers and that's not how I remember it. What I remember is film photographers looking forward to much better quality in future digital cameras so we wouldn't ever have to deal with the hassle of film again.

"Shooting at 1,600 ISO it performed better than my trusty Canon 5D Mark II."

No phone today can match the image quality of any large sensor camera, even your older but excellent Canon. I'm guessing you mean that the shot was simply much easier to get. No argument there. My wife has an iPhone 7+ and I'm amazed at how easy it is to get good images out of it.

"Back in the day, we had the warm, comforting sounds that only a vinyl could create."

My first CD player was a Technics back in 1984. The first compact disc that I played on it, I also happened to own the same album as a record (sorry, I will never use the young hipster term vinyl), and when I first played that album on CD it was a mouth hanging open moment. The record version was absolute crap in comparison. No comparison. I experience the same today with my MP4 iTunes downloads. What people think of as warm in records is actually a lack of clarity. That's all.

"Yet in the last few years reports came in that vinyl sales are actually overtaking CD sales."

That's mostly based on the curiousity of a generation of young people that never experienced film. I predict that surge in sales will eventually collapse. I look at it as a fad. In a way it is sad, but I think that will happen.

"This trend is not only limited to music. Dave Hill, the king of digital composites, shot some major campaigns using film in recent years."

The funny thing is digital today can look just like film, and I'm not talking about using software to emulate film. If people would simply stop using awful in-camera JPGs and lose the noise reduction and excessive and poor sharpening techniques then they would find that their digital images are essentially indistinguishable to film images. Digital imaging sensors and film work remarkably similar, and the grain of the latter is remarkably similar to the general noise of former. Think about it.

I have to disagree with you, Peter, largely because you are approaching this issue from a results orientated outlook. What you have not addressed, and is becoming increasing important, is an emphasis on process. Shooting with film is profoundly different process from shooting digital and that process is just as important as the product. The tangible nature of film negatives and positives, of chemicals, of wet prints is different from that of working on a computer screen with an image generated from bits and bytes. Many, including you I suspect, really did not like the process of film photography. Which is entirely valid. But it does not negate the positive experiences of others. If you are interested further in this topic, I can recommend an excellent book on the subject, "The Revenge of Analog; Real Things and Why They Matter " by David Sax that goes far deeper into the subject than I can manage in a comment.

Outside of exposure, of course it's a different process. The thing is, very few people get into the entire process of analog photography. Most people simply send off their film to be developed and scanned, or they scan it at home after development. And most, sadly, never even get to experience creating their own wet prints, which is arguably the most revelatory and enjoyable part of film photography.

Besides, the two most common reasons given for shooting film today, outside of the biggest one being curiosity from those that never experienced film, is that it forces them to slow down and be more considerate in what and how they shoot. Of course there is nothing stopping anyone from doing the same thing with digital, besides having a small amount of self-discipline. The other reason is that film images have, and I cringe hearing the word, a more organic look to it.

The thing is, that's hogwash. Digital, with it's superior resolution and noise levels is by definition of the word organic, at least in this context, the more organic looking medium as it captures images more detailed and more clearly than film. It is capable of creating the more realistic image.

The only thing that ruins digital images today are in-camera JPGS and the over and poor processing of RAW images that result in plastic looking images that look more like CGI graphics than actual photographic images.

Outside of some truly dedicated artists I don't see the younger generations of today going through the entire process of analog photography, or even embracing in the limited way I described for too long. As I said, I see the resurgence of film photography as mostly just a curiosity that once experienced will be left behind. And once the old film veterans die off, there will be even fewer film photographers left to sustain such an industry.

Glenn Riegel's picture

Dang...do I fall into the "old film veteran" category...souped lots of film-all formats, and spent a lifetime hunched over trays and processors. As a 28 year veteran teacher of photography, I'd say the curiosity in analog and retro is rather true. Fifteen years ago I imagined that analog silver-based imaging would become the alt process of the current era-dedicated artists will always look for ways to be "crafty" and express themselves and some will search out non-mainstream ways to that end. I rue the fact that I can't shoot with the Land cameras I have...and it's intriguing to see the resurgence in instant film (makes me sad to know Polaroid went belly-up on that tech over a decade ago. And I applauded being able for a time to shoot Fuji pack film in the old cameras-my senior portrait clients get a huge kick out of that instant print stuff that is soooo sharp!)

Painters that were displaced by photographers adapted their method or moved on...Polaroid never did replace commercial film, digital wasn't ever going to be as good as film...oh wait... DSLR will be replaced by iPhone? The Lytra technology will make focus irrelevant? What other "truisms will be next, only to be replaced? George Eastman brought photography to the masses...and a slow evolution has been taking place on the consumer level ever since.

Michael Clark's picture

While I agree with pretty much everything you said, I think digital is even more revolutionary than the slow evolution of consumer access over the century between the introduction of the Brownie and the introduction of the smart phone. The digital revolution and especially the improvements to smart phones over the past decade or so have convinced the masses to trade image quality and any desire for well composed, properly executed, and crafted images for instant accessibility. Even with a Brownie, or a Polaroid there was a cost-per-image that was easily perceived by the user. With the smartphone that is gone.

The masses have no clue about the differences in image quality between different formats. After all, it is kind of hard for the masses to appreciate superior image quality if they are not even exposed to it in a way that would clearly show it off.

When was the last time you saw marketing to *the masses* that would explain and show the differences in image quality of different camera formats and sensors? It simply doesn't exist.

The attitude of the masses is not significantly different today than it was during the film era. Outside of now being able to take more photos I don't see them caring any more or less about image quality. No surprise then that the lack of marketing I described above also didn't exist during the film era, otherwise many more people would have been shooting medium format.

Glenn Riegel's picture

The consumer has always bought into the "easy" aspect of tech...it tickles me about when you mention medium format...actual folder cameras and box cameras of yore used 120 and 118 format film or larger. Thanks to BDE, fixed focus and large film size, some of those old early twentieth century cameras did a decent job of making up for their user's ignorance...that and lab workers that could deal with film that was tortured in every way possible. ;) Mass imaging is gone wild-at the cost of knowledge of quality..but Peter, I think you are right in saying that the average consumer simply wants to take photos...the narcissistic nature of people has pushed the quantity over the cliff...but, like so much else, it's disposable. Used to be we would keep the images and throw the camera away...now with the likes of Snapchat or "My Story" it's the image that is expendable.

"it tickles me about when you mention medium format...actual folder cameras and box cameras of yore used 120 and 118 format film or larger."

My thoughts surrounding my medium format comment were after the introduction and mass adoption of 35mm. But yeah, funny, and sad, to think that was the case. I love looking at the incredible detail of old large format photojournalism.

"Used to be we would keep the images and throw the camera away...now with the likes of Snapchat or "My Story" it's the image that is expendable."

We also have the situation that even for the many people that keep all their digital images, the sheer quantity of them diminishes their individual value. I've tried to convince people to cull the good from the bad and the mediocre but most people seem to be digital hoarders. They save everything and then the best gets lost in the mediocrity and the forgettable.

Scott Hays's picture

You are dead on that with the masses the image quality has never really mattered. Like all things there are the exceptions. I know that with my mom and others any time she took a trip or took family pictures or anything else she would get so mad if her pictures weren't just right on (film) and they were just "for the heck of it" pictures. And most of the people I knew were like that. But when you were paying for the images you expected them to turn out. The funny thing was it could never have been the person holding the camera. It always had to have been the film (old, the actual store selling the film) the processing, must be the camera: time for a new camera... but never the person holding the camera.

I think one of the biggest problems now is how many people do anything with the images they take? They sit on memory cards for the most part. I always try to get my kids to download their images, print them for some kind of an album or something. My son takes some great images on snapchat and sends them. I ask him if he takes it for his files and he says he forgets about that. He is doing better, but at what point do they start to remember that there isn't going to be back up images? When do future generations have something to look at?

Is there actually a guarantee that our society or technology is going to have the ability to retain the images that are being stored on phones, etc... There are a lot of lost images from 10-20 years ago that people thought would be around forever.

I bought my first SLR camera in 1980; I chose the Canon A-1 since it was "state of the art" at the time. I thought it would be the last camera that I buy, or at least according to my wife. July 2013, I bought a used F-1N, my wife asked "That's their top of the line?" and I answered "Yes, for the 80's" and she said "Buy it." December 2013, she bought me a Canon 5D III. The 5D may be my "last DSLR"; I don't know. I don't know what the life cycle of DSLRs is.
But I still shoot film with the A-1 and F-1N, as well as use the 5D.

Scott Hays's picture

I've been trying to write on this topic for awhile now. For the longest time I found myself being critical of digital technology. I am one of those "film" photographers that started about 40 years ago. Now, I do shoot digital but I still shoot film as well. I find a specific use for both. I find I use my DSLR as the perfect spot meter for my medium format. Ok, I shoot with it as well.

However, over time I have decided that it isn't as much technology that bothers me as much as the fact that what technology has done is allowed the "photographer" to become less educated about what photography is or should be. I am not saying that all photographers do not educate themselves however in the professional realm digital did allow anyone and everyone to pick up a camera and declare themselves to be a professional photographer. Almost any digital photographer that I have ever spoken to that has never shot film has said that if it wouldn't have been for digital they would have never gone into photography. They will also tell you that if they couldn't look at the back of their camera they wouldn't know what to do. If it wasn't for their histogram they wouldn't be able to take a decent picture... If it wasn't for Photoshop... and the list goes on.

Let me interject I am not saying this is true for all professional photographers that have only dealt with Digital. However I am willing to bet it is the majority. My point? Most photographers can not tell you the importance of light and shadows in a photograph. They can't tell you why shooting manual with their camera is better for creativity than just putting their DSLR on auto and going crazy. The simple things like the Sunny 16 Rule. Why doesn't it still apply? Why not learn it? In short; there is no photography left with digital. Film is not hard, it just requires you to actually know and understand photography. That is the scary part. You might have to learn your trade.

As far as for the general public, I think digital is great. The article is correct. When the Brownie came out in 1900 +/- just like every other advancement in photography the industry was convinced that that it was doomed. Remember that there had never been a consumer camera before. No one knew what was going to happen. For $1 you could buy that camera, send it in and you were doing what pretty much only a professional was doing before. It was the digital revolution of its time. And we went from film professionals to everyone that could buy a DSLR was a professional.

This has to be my favorite statement of all time as far as changes in the industry is concerned. When the Daguerreotype surfaced it was a simpler format than anyone had ever seen. Suddenly "everyone" was able to take a picture if they could afford the set up. This paragraph came out of a London newspaper:

"The wish to capture evanescent reflections is not only impossible... but the mere desire alone, the will to do so, is blasphemy. God created man in His own image, and no man- made machine may fix the image of God. Is it possible that God should have abandoned His eternal principles, and allowed a Frenchman... to give to the world an invention of the Devil?"

Now; those of us who have shot film for a long time are not as critical of digital as we once were, but I do believe it is more a matter of the lack of respect for the training or a lack of training new photographers are receiving. Every time there has been a change in the type of gear there has always been push back.

At least we are not saying that digital is the devils spawn. (always end on a positive note)

"Now; those of us who have shot film for a long time are not as critical of digital as we once were, but I do believe it is more a matter of the lack of respect for the training or a lack of training new photographers are receiving."

There was a time where youngsters were commonly taught trades and crafts in school. At least here in America vocational classes in high schools are no longer the norm. Even in colleges, the last time I looked into it, the trend was to get away from offering photography courses. When I was in high school in the 70s we had many kinds of vocational courses, such as wood shop and photography. I guess the powers that be feel classes in gender and diversity studies is more important.

Scott Hays's picture

Peter, I think you hit it on the head. The college I went to used to require an essay, portfolio, etc... there was a limited number of seats and if you didn't get accepted you couldn't even take a photography class within the department. It was a 2 year program (late 70's) but you went through 35mm, med format into 4x5 or 5x7. It was intense.

I'm not sure when they changed it, but it moved to a Photography Degree that anyone could enter; no standards and take any class you want. I know it was pre-digital though. If I'm not mistaken it was right before digital really took off.

The meaning of the degrees that were given out when I was at school there took a dive. I don't know anyone that will even say that they received a degree in photography there as it is meaningless now.

At the same time, we do have a high school here locally where the teacher is just unbelievable. I walked into one of the local libraries last spring where his seniors were showing their final work and without realizing who was doing the show; my first thought was "this persons work is incredible". After I talked to a couple of people, I found out how he teaches his classes. He still requires film their freshmen year, dark room, so on and so forth. He makes them learn everything there is to know; and it shows. It is so impressive.

However, at the same time you now that is a rarity. Someday I hope that there will be a turn around in the field. Not in the technology necessarily; but maybe someone will realize that the quality needs to come back in the profession and that just pointing the camera is not how it is done. that photo enhancement programs isn't the answer.

Or, I will just continue doing my thing and I know there are still others out there that have the same general feelings that I do.